by Annette Basile, FILMINK, September 2008
Mascara is "streaming down" Liv Tyler's face. She's not feeling well. It's an image at odds with her glamorous A-List looks. On the line from Los Angeles, Tyler sweetly apologises to FILMINK fora delayed start to the interview. "I feel really sick," she admits. "You know when you get a horrible headache out of nowhere, and you feel hot and flushed? I just got a cool washcloth and splashed my face with water." Hence the running mascara.
The thirty-one-year old actor, a self-confessed horror flick fan, is promoting her new film The Strangers, an effectively scary movie about a home invasion. There are no supernatural elements, and there's minimal gore - The Strangers is all about psychological tension. Tyler plays Kristen McKay, who arrives with her boyfriend James Hoyt (Scott Speedman) at his family's isolated vacation house after a friend's wedding. We meet them at a crucial point in their relationship, and instead of a night of romance, the couple is faced with three masked invaders - a man and two women - who play sick and twisted mind games with their victims.
To build the fear, first time writer/director Bryan Bertino chose to shoot the scenes in chronological order. "That's always such a help whenever you can do that, especially with a movie like this," says Tyler. "The thing that was the most important to us was that it was really very real. It's very bleak, and very simple. There are times when I don't even speak for fifteen minutes, and there's no music or score either. I had to be very vulnerable, so it was very important that we gave the most natural or real performances possible. So shooting in order really helped us to gauge things - we didn't want it to seem campy or hokey or over-the-top, which you can do with horror films. It was nice to have the build up of figuring out, 'Okay, if this was really happening to me at this moment, how would I be feeling? What would that escalate into?'"
To prepare for scenes, Tyler and Speedman ran around the set "like crazy" to get themselves out of breath and bump up their heart rate. "Every day after lunch, we'd have to come back and get right back into that same emotional place," she explains. "So if I was crying, or hyperventilating, or whatever was happening, day after day after day I had to be in that same place and that same state of mind for two-and-a-half months. That was tricky to figure out - a lot of it has to do with breathing. When you get really scared or something - even if you're driving and someone almost hits you and you slam on the brakes - it's that shock feeling, and your heart starts beating really fast. I mean, you obviously can't have that same feeling or make that happen unless you're really shocked. So we would run - it's so silly [laughs] - around the set. We shot in this big warehouse, and we would get ourselves out of breath and all sweaty, and that helped a lot. The breath connects you to your emotions. You just get into a flow and find the tools that help you or that work for you - they're different for everybody, and that depends on the movie that you're doing, the character you're playing and the people you're around."
As Bertino's directing technique was rooted in trying to create something true to life, he specifically asked Tyler to avoid practice screams so that the actor could capture the moment at exactly the same time as her character. "I knew that I had a big loud voice, and my mum and my dad have big loud voices," laughs Tyler about her first on-set scream. "I knew somewhere inside of me that that was there. But it's like that nightmare you have where you're running and you open your mouth to scream and nothing comes out. I had that nightmare for months. Also, I couldn't really practice screaming, because I would have scared the shit out of everybody [laughs]. I remember the first time that I did scream - it was really funny because the poor sound man had no idea what was coming! His poor ears! And there was this crazy echo in the warehouse; this ripple effect of screams would go on." The screams, she adds, were so loud as to be distorted on playback, and they were re-recorded on the sound stage after principal photography - a common practice in filmmaking.
The Strangers is inspired by true events, and although there's no single specific case it recreates, comparisons have been drawn to the 1981 Keddie Murders - a brutal triple slaying at a Californian resort - and the infamous Manson Family killings. Australian model-turned-actress Gemma Ward, who deftly portrays one of the masked intruders, read the chilling Helter Skelter: The True Story Of The Manson Murders to prepare for her part. But Tyler is somewhat vague about the film's real life connection. Asked if The Strangers is related to actual events, she replies, "Yes and no - I know for sure that it was based on stories and ideas and things that [Bertino] had read about, or known about, when he was writing it."
Tyler has suffered for her art in the making of this film, and she says that it was "definitely" the most "emotionally, mentally and probably physically" draining role that she's done to date. She also fell ill with tonsillitis during the shoot. "Towards the end, I got a really bad infection for a week," she says. "I had a really bad fever, and I just couldn't get out of bed. Even the doctor who came to look at my tonsils was like, 'Whoa, I've never seen tonsils so big before'. I was actually like tripping - like when you have such a high fever you sort of hear things and see things."
Could Liv Tyler put herself in the place of the average viewer when watching the finished product? "No, I never can," she replies. But she still gets a kick out of monitoring an audience's reaction. "There's a scene in The Strangers that's so scary, and it's so amazing to sit in the theatre and hear what happens when people see this one moment. It's just so interesting because everyone has a different reaction, and it's like there's something in the movie where you notice something in the background, and everyone discovers it at a different point. Hearing the ripple of how people react is really amazing. I love it."
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